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Where's the Party? : Being a Democrat in Orange County Constitutes Something of a Social Disease

July 16, 1988|DANA PARSONS | Times Staff Writer

Molly Lyon, a self-described political activist from Newport Beach, has seen the stares and felt the cold shoulders from the gentry. It's not that she's socially unfit; after all, she has the Linda Isle address and her husband, Leon, is on the board of the Newport Harbor Art Museum.

No, it's not that Lyon is boorish or uncivil. It's just that she's, well . . . a Democrat. And in Republican-dominated Orange County, being a Democrat won't get you thrown out of restaurants, but don't count on a table with a view.

"I have a Dukakis (for President) button that I'll wear sometimes when I go to Gelson's (an upscale Newport Beach market)," Lyon said. "I get different reactions. Some are really positive. Or I'll get stares, particularly from women. They'll look at the button and freeze, as if they just smelled something. Then they look the other way."

Apparently, that kind of treatment starts young. Four years ago, during the 1984 presidential election campaign, a 9-year-old boy went to his Yorba Linda elementary school with a Mondale-Ferraro sticker on his notebook. When some of his schoolmates teased him about it on the playground, the boy's mother complained to his teacher. The teacher, trying to explain the taunting, said: "You have to understand, you're in Orange County now."

Whether the child had unwittingly stumbled into a chapter meeting of the (Very) Young Republicans is unknown, but he wasn't the first, or last, to feel the social sting of being a Democrat in this county.

"I'm sure there's a Freudian term to apply to the fact that people remain Democrats in a society where even some of the Democrats border on being Republican," said J. (Walkie) Ray, a Democrat who lives in Irvine and is president of J. Ray Construction Co. "When I go to vote, there's this sheaf of papers that contain the Republican electorate. I think there's one page that contains the Democrats, and I think my wife and I are probably a third of the page."

Nora Lehman, a writer and former publisher, remembers the first time she voted on Lido Isle, in the 1960 California primary. Her mother-in-law, also a Democrat, went earlier in the day and asked for the ballot. The polling officials gave her the Republican ballot. "She didn't look at it until she got in the voting booth, then came back out and said she needed the Democratic ballot," Lehman said.

"They leaned under the table, practically blowing the dust off the Democratic ballot and handed it" to her, Lehman said.

Her husband, Hal, also a Democrat, went in later in the day and had an identical experience.

"By the time I got there and told them my name was Nora Lehman, they just looked at me and said, 'She's probably one of them.' So they leaned down and gave me the correct ballot. I didn't know what they meant until dinner that night."

Throughout its modern history, the county has been synonymous with conservative Republican politics, and not just because the airport is named after John Wayne. The image has been burnished over the years at the ballot box, with the election of a succession of ultraconservatives to Congress--a lineage that runs from James B. Utt through John G. Schmitz to Robert K. Dornan. It is a county that gave Ronald Reagan 67% of its vote in 1980 and 73% in 1984, both significantly higher than the national average.

This weekend, 15 delegates and five alternates from the county will carry the sometimes-tattered banner of the county's Democrats to the party's national convention in Atlanta.

Lehman, who lives in Newport Beach, said she and her husband's Democratic politics seem to amuse their Republican friends. "I think they've accepted us socially in spite of that," she said, laughing.

"But it's like they've said, 'Well, they have this one odd thing, like a handicap of some kind. They do all the proper things, but they have this curious (problem). But let's accept them anyway. They're good kids. They can't do any damage, God knows.' "

The result, Lehman said, is that Republican friends "can afford to be a little more condescending and pat you on the head."

The Republicans have the force of numbers on their side. Figures before the June primary showed that 54% of the county's registered voters are Republican, with 35% registered as Democrats. The trend is moving the wrong way for Democrats: in 1980, 46% of the voters registered as Republicans and 41% Democrats.

Those kinds of numbers make Lyon say, "Sometimes I do feel like a voice crying in the wind."

James Roosevelt said he has had his share of give-and-take with his Republican friends in Newport Beach. "I've had no really embarrassing moments that I can remember," said the son of Franklin D. Roosevelt. "Occasionally, they (Republican friends) treat me like a rather rare animal that needs protection."

Every so often, Roosevelt said, "people will say, 'I understand you're a Republican now that you're living down in Orange County.'

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